Tibetan monk in retreat kills self in protest as Chinese authorities escalate religious repression

Last May, an unidentified Tibetan monk was forced to take his own life amid widespread crackdown on Tibetan monastic institutions in Kanlho (Ch: Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province, in the Tibetan province of Amdo.

At the time of his death, the monk was in retreat at his residence in Khagya Township, which comes under the jurisdiction of the prefectural capital of Tsoe (Ch: Hezuo) City. Exile Tibetan sources reported that the monk had self-immolated in front of a portrait of the Tibetan spiritual leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama to protest the widespread crackdown on Tibetan Buddhist institutions in the prefecture.

The crackdown, conducted under the direction of Yang Wu, the governor and deputy party secretary of Kanlho prefecture, involved tightening of control on monasteries, intimidation of devotees, and forced entries into sacred religious spaces such as violating the spiritual practice of monks in retreat.

Family detained on the pretext of Covid

Exile Tibetan sources also reported that the deceased monk’s family members had been taken to Tsoe city where they remain detained at an undisclosed location. They are being detained on the pretext that they had possibly been infected with Covid after one of their relatives had returned from a Chinese town where he was employed as a casual worker. The relative had returned to Khagya upon hearing of the monk’s death from family members.

Local sources believe that the reason for detention was to stop the information about the monk’s death from being shared outside of Tibet.

Local authorities have ramped up restrictions across the prefecture making it difficult to immediately ascertain the identity of the monk.

Banned portrait of Dalai Lama

The monk’s self-immolation in front of the banned portrait of the Dalai Lama is significant. In 2018, TCHRD reported on the implementation of a decree issued by the Kanlho party authorities called “Specialised Cleanup of the 14th Dalai Lama’s Portraits’, which required the destruction of the Tibetan spiritual leader’s photos and their replacement with the photos of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping. The decree was implemented in hundreds of villages in the prefecture resulting in the forced removal of Dalai Lama’s portraits and destruction of religious objects such as Mani prayer rooms.

The decree’s implementation resulted in intensified political education campaigns in monastic institutions in order to “strengthen the socialist road with Chinese characteristics, enhance national consciousness, continuously improve the sensitivity and discernment of dealing with complex issues, and resolutely fight against the Dalai clique, foreign hostile forces and religious extremists.”

Wang Yang’s Inspection Visit

Wang Yang talks to monks at Taktsang Lhamo monastery (Langmusi) on 24 May in Luchu (Ch: Luqu) County in Kanlho. Photo: Liu Weibing/Xinhua News Agency

Yang Wu’s latest crackdown on Tibetan monastic institutions was conducted in preparation of Wang Yang’s inspection visit to Kanlho from 23 to 25 May. Wang is a Politburo Standing Committee member of the party Central Committee and chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference as well as head of the Central Committee’s Xinjiang Work Coordination Small Group. Chinese state media reported that Wang inspected schools and religious institutions in rural nomadic communities and “emphasized the full implementation of the party’s ethnic and religious policies” by promoting “high-quality development and long-term stability” in Kanlho.

Wang further emphasized the necessity of “carrying out in-depth anti-separatist struggles”, “building an iron wall for national security”, “solidly promoting the cause of national unity”, “popularizing the common national language [Mandarin Chinese],” and “adhering to the direction of sinicization of religion.” He also called for “strengthening the management of religious affairs in accordance with the law”, “improving the long-term mechanism for the management of Tibetan Buddhist temples,” and “guiding Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to socialist society.”

Kanlho prefecture party secretary Yu Chenghui. Photo: Gannan People’s Government website

TCHRD strongly condemns the crackdown on Tibetan religious communities and calls for a thorough investigation into the death of the monk. Both Yang Wu and Yu Chenghui, the Kanlho party secretary, must be investigated for their role in the circumstances leading to the death of the unidentified monk.

“Going on a retreat is a profound Buddhist practice that helps practitioners to focus on the mind and deepen one’s spiritual practice free from distractions. That a mere monk is unable to engage safely in solitary spiritual retreat at his own home without the violent interferences of the Chinese state shows the extent and depth of religious repression in Tibet,” said Nyiwoe, TCHRD’s researcher.

“We call on Chinese authorities to immediately put a halt to policies and practices that violate human rights particularly the right to freedom of religion and belief. In its aggressive attempts to impose atheism in the name of ‘sinicizing religions’, the Chinese party-state is violating the legitimate rights of Tibetan Buddhists to worship their own spiritual leaders and practice their beliefs.”